Joe Conyers III, VP of Technology at Downtown Music, on Forward-Thinking Music Publishing

The last 15 years have been a wild ride, but the dust is finally starting to settle, and we’re on the brink of a more efficient, transparent, and sustainable music business. All Together Now is a series of Q&As with some of the best and brightest minds in the music business regarding the changes they are experiencing and the steps they are taking to adapt. We interview influential artists and songwriters, as well as leaders from labels, management teams, publishers, and streaming services to hear what they think it takes for us to come together to build a faster, smarter music industry. All together now.

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Imogen Heap recently inked a publishing deal with Downtown. Conyers and team are advising and supporting her as she develops Myclia, a “fair-trade” royalty payment system based on blockchain principles.
“Many companies in our space do not understand that data is their most important asset. They’re still using databases built in the 90’s.”

In his role as VP of Technology at Downtown Music Publishing, Joe Conyers III works hard to make sure the publisher isn’t one of those companies. Downtown offers a wide range of services to a roster and catalog that includes John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Hans Zimmer, and Elle Goulding. Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Imogen Heap signed an innovative administrative deal with the publisher in December, which allows her to develop her new blockchain-inspired “fair-trade” music distribution and payment system, Mycelia.

Heap, who contributed as a co-writer and producer to Taylor Swift’s 1989, praised Downtown in an interview with Billboard, saying, “It’s really a great opportunity to work with a forward-thinking publishing company when the future is so wide open at the moment.”

Conyers was right in the middle of that deal, and told Billboard it “was great to partner with somebody like [Heap], who’s really going to be a builder with us. That’s the spirit of this.”

In 2011, Downtown started Songtrust, where Conyers is also the VP/General Manager. The platform’s online admin system allows songwriters, artists, managers, labels and publishers to efficiently collect royalties from digital service providers like Spotify, Youtube, and Pandora, as well as terrestrial radio, film, TV, and other formats in over 50 markets worldwide. Songtrust now represents more than 50,000 writers with a combined catalog of 250,000+ songs, some of which have been performed by the likes of Bruno Mars, Selena Gomez, and Frank Ocean.

“Our investments in technology and staff on the [metadata] front are beginning to show the fruits of their labor.”

Conyers eats, sleeps and breathes technology. In our brief email exchange, he referenced an illuminating article he penned regarding the issue of unlicensed music in user-generated Facebook content, discussed the possibilities of virtual reality music videos, which he says we aren’t ready for yet, and mentioned the rising number of digital proposals (i.e Heap) that cross his desk every month. Downtown and Songtrust are in good hands, as it’s clear that Conyers will continue to study and adapt to the various new platforms and deal structures he sees on a regular basis.

There’s been chatter that Adele’s recent decision to keep 25 off on-demand streaming services is short-sighted. How can labels and publishers balance a need for what’s best for them “right now” with what’s good for the overall industry in the long term?

Certain incredibly high profile artists have a market privilege right now. Right now it’s just a gut calculation that people will still buy CDs and Downloads from some artists. I think labels and publishers have little ability to influence any change here, it’s a technology adoption lifecycle issue. A small few are able to take advantage of the fact that they will be able to double dip here, in 6–24 months when they launch on streaming services they will still get incredible amounts of playlist addition and a bunch of free marketing from DSPs.

CDs are slowly becoming a relic — this is a function of how many cars with CD players still exist and how many holiday seasons where a gift receiver complains they don’t have a CD Player. (There are now zero new macs with optical drives. PCs with them are becoming a rarity as well.) Digital Downloads are well understood by the late majority and laggards and streaming is still barely cracking into the early majority. It will take 2–4 cycles of replacing phones to really move the needle here — and switching to streaming must be easier than moving your download catalog to your new phone. Once Apple and Google/Youtube crack this UX problem it will be a lot easier to convince people to go.

We’ve also heard different opinions concerning streaming royalties. You are in a position where you see a wide variety of statements between Downtown and Songtrust. What do you see as the most exciting emerging revenue opportunities for publishers and songwriters?

The old adage of publishing being a pennies business is still going strong and bears repeating. I’m now looking at 5–10 new digital deals a month. We are seeing more and more interesting business models outside of traditional streaming services. I’m very excited about other UGC video and streaming platforms getting licensed in the coming years, in particular Facebook will be a major opportunity. (For those interested I’ve written in depth about their issues in video on our advocacy blog.) I’m also excited by Instagram, Vine, Periscope, YouNow, and other short form and live platforms.

It is a Huge challenge for these companies to get licensed and operational — but once they have the music ecosystem will be so much more robust. Looking farther on the horizon VR will be a major category. I think we will have another ringtone / Guitar Hero like spike in revenue from a number of emerging services there(think VR music videos). VR is likely going to be massive but I’m not sure if music is going to be a top category just yet. The next two holiday cycles will be the big indicator of the future there as at present the average consumer’s computers are not powerful enough to run VR.

Has the shift towards Film & TV as a primary publishing revenue source affected Downtown’s strategy towards signing artists?

It certainly helps when our clients are attractive for synch, Downtown started in 2007 and never relied on mechanicals as a major income source. We’ve always had to go out and earn money for our clients. Synch has always been core to our business — we’ve kept this strong as we’ve grown by maintaining a high staff to song ratio.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities an all-streaming future would present to Downtown?

We see the ratio of Publishing to Master revenue to be one of our biggest challenges. Publishers are investing more in artists and writers in recent history but are not being compensated for it. We’ve only really started to see that rate creep up in last year, there is still so much uncertainty around the consent decree so it’s tough for the DSPs to ask for this give from the labels.

Opportunity wise we really tried to get ahead of metadata issues, which is now paying off. Our investments in technology and staff on that front are beginning to show the fruits of their labor.

Putting the politics aside, from a pure technology perspective, what still needs to be built for the music industry to be as structurally efficient and transparent as possible?

There is a lot of 90s business organization and ‘IT’ thinking still happening in various institutions. The industry and institutions in the market have not really grasped the idea that your software development teams should probably not report to your IT division who was originally charged with making sure everyone had a computer. The industry is still heavily reliant on FTP and batch files rather than using real time APIs which leads to a lot of bad data and slow feedback loops. The other major issue is that many companies in our space do not understand that data is their most important asset. Many institutions are still using databases built in the 90’s that are silo’d by division. This is all stuff that was solved in the 2000’s by finance and tech companies but has yet to come to our industry as there has been a distinct lack of technology and operational investment in this space.

Downtown Music Publishing, along with a handful of other music companies are customers and investors in Songspace.

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